|My art school years were formative. I dropped out of high school when I was 18. For the next five years I tried to teach myself how to paint, and I read a lot of art history, as well as the art magazines. By the time I got to art school I was older than most of my classmates, and also had some perspectives other than what my teachers were comfortable with. I knew about Duchamp and John Cage, Jean Luc Godard, and I read about theology and philosophy. I taught a Bible class and that gave me experience in literary criticism, of a sort. All of these influences gave me a critical approach to the material being taught.
Lori Ellison & Lawrence Swan In Conversation
Lori Ellison: Just to get things started, how did you begin making the work you are making now?
Lawrence Swan: That James Castle show we saw in Philadelphia affected me. I responded to his handling of materials. I didn’t set out to imitate him, but I think he helped me break through or break out of the illusion of two dimensions in drawing, so instead of drawing on a flat surface, I bend, fold, mutilate, the material to make several surfaces. Before that, I was obsessively drawing a simple face in profile for a long, long time. I thought of it as a mask. One day I figured out I could make it three-dimensional by folding the paper. So then I had a mask, instead of a drawing of a mask. After that, I made cubes, tetrahedrons, stars and flowers.
Lawrence Swan, Head On Block, 2012. Tin cans, wood block, acrylic paint, 13 X 7 X 6 in. Courtesy of the artist.
LE: I began making abstract work in graduate school. Once, I started a freehand pattern for a background and became more interested in the intricacies and mutations in covering the wood panel than any figures I could put on. My notebook drawings came from working on these large paintings—I found myself doodling the motifs from the paintings in my notebook at artists’ lectures. Upon moving up to New York, I had no studio so I started drawing in notebooks, and I’ve kept at painting and drawing ever since.
For me, your most surprising new work has been your very large collage works. What inspired you to make them?
LS: When I found out I would be in a show with Mary Judge I wanted to make some drawings that were as big and colorful as hers are. I had been doing small, monochromatic pieces. They are obviously like quilts, many small drawings attached together, but I thought of them as texts, so they are shaped like scrolls. A complex of rhythms holds them together.
Speaking of your notebook drawings, the first work of yours I saw was in a group show. I had been working primarily in notebooks for years and wasn’t having success doing “finished” pieces outside of that. Your work has been very inspiring for me. I’m interested in your account of how the figure became superfluous as you became more involved with the ground, or in a kind of pattern making with interacting elements where there is a perpetual shifting of figure and ground. I feel the terms “figure” and “ground” have become irrelevant, as have “positive” and “negative” space.
Our ways of working are very different. Do you want to describe your method for painting panels?
LE: The panel paintings came out of the drawings and then got even smaller, and some larger. Gouache on wood turned out to be my medium after trying all kinds of paint. I wrote an essay titled On Humility, about the value of small paintings. I sometimes have to do thirty drawings to get a new idea for a painting.
What do you look to for your ideas?
Lori Ellison, Untitled, 2012. Gouache on wood, 10 x 8 in. Courtesy of the artist
LS: Sometimes ideas come easily and spontaneously. At other times, maybe most of the time, I have to search for them by making a lot of drawings, or going for a walk, or looking through art books. I look at art from different cultures and non-professionals, as well as other artists. I have a lot of sketchbooks and notebooks and there are a lot of ideas in them that I’ve forgotten, or feel I can do more with. I’ve probably been working with the same basic ideas for decades. An “idea” can be something I find in a drawing I’ve done that I want to do again, or develop. Usually, I’ll do a series this way and the idea evolves until I lose interest in it. Then I need another idea.
You have used writing in your work. Some of your earlier figurative work incorporates text and you have done drawings of lists and phrases (such as “Facetime, not Facebook”) and I have made word games. Do you think you might do something with words again?
LE: I originally did some lists—my first list was books I read on arriving in New York in chronological order using ballpoint pen on notebook paper, like my abstract drawings. The words were rendered in this goth girl style I had developed. James Siena bought that one along with another drawing of mine and so I did a few more.
Then, in 1999 I started to write aphorisms and when I had written over 100 I did a series of drawings using them. I hope to make drawings of my aphorisms again as I continue to write them. That is on hold for the future while I am concentrating on abstract paintings for a while to come.
Can you go more into your word art?
LS: I can’t say enough about this “word art” and can easily say too much. I was looking for the differences between writing and drawing. I was also looking for ways to combine them poetically or philosophically. This led to a lot of different kinds of work, including an attempt to make my own language. The word games are ways to make visual “rhymes.” What does rhyme or meter contribute to a written/spoken poem? I look for words I can put together as palindromes, anagrams, word squares, or some other way besides a sentence. The words should also combine to make, or appear to make, meaning. I have used codes, pictograms, and ideograms. I was interested in the Chinese literati painter poets. Chinese writing is more obviously related to drawing in the calligraphic tradition. Now we are coming to a point where handwriting might become rare.
Another thing about the literati was their independence from market concerns. They had positions in government and could pursue their art with no thought of selling it. I always wanted that independence, but have had difficulty finding ways to make a living that also gave me time to make art, and to be part of a community of artists. There are artists everywhere, and many of them don’t think of selling what they make, and there are also different kinds of art markets. Could you say something about the art game in New York and how you have managed?
LE: I can’t say I have ever thought about it as a game. I was fortunate to sell my work to a few respected collectors and artists when first arriving in New York, but it was really a capsule review by Roberta Smith in 2008 that was the turning point. I would actually prefer not to go into the business aspects of my work—it is very harsh out there for the majority of us.
Ask me another question please!
LS: OK. That capsule review was for the show you and Shari Mendelson had at Sideshow. Was that 2007? In January of this year you had a one person show at MacKenzie that got a lot of attention. Your work is also seen on Facebook, where you share some of your poetry and aphorisms. You also share images of my work, which is where Fred Valentine first saw it, and that led to the show we had together at his gallery. I joked that you have a cult following. Didn’t some people know about you through your aphorisms, before they discovered your drawings and paintings? How did you start doing aphorisms?
The show with Shari was in 2008, in March through April. I use Facebook a lot—for my aphorisms, poetry and artwork. I finish a drawing or painting and I scan it and post it on my wall for the comments and likes. James Panero, in his review of my work, mentioned that I am an artist who uses social media. I don’t feel like I use it for self-promotion as much as immerse myself in it. I would be a cult figure except I am open and participate on so many others threads and am in constant dialogue with others.
I started doing aphorisms one summer when I left New York to stay in Virginia with friends and had a lot of bottled up emotions and suddenly I just started writing them. I did over a hundred that summer. I stopped writing them for years and got back into it on Facebook. I did show my notebook drawings of the aphorisms to Rob Storr following a panel discussion, and he said, “there are thousands and thousands of artists and there are thousands and thousands of poets but there are only a few aphorists.” And he asked me to email them to him. I would email one every few days and every so often get a response to one he thought particularly good. I had the idea then of sending them to Jerry Saltz, one every few days, then finally introduced myself at James Siena’s opening as the one sending them. I gave a card for the show at Sideshow with Shari to Jerry and he and Roberta both came to the show and wrote about it.
LE: You went to Cleveland Institute of Art, were those formative years in any way or have you left it all in the past?
LS: My art school years were formative. I dropped out of high school when I was 18. For the next five years I tried to teach myself how to paint, and I read a lot of art history, as well as the art magazines. By the time I got to art school I was older than most of my classmates, and also had some perspectives other than what my teachers were comfortable with. I knew about Duchamp and John Cage, Jean Luc Godard, and I read about theology and philosophy. I taught a Bible class and that gave me experience in literary criticism, of a sort. All of these influences gave me a critical approach to the material being taught.
We were in art school the same years, 77-81. You were writing music reviews, and going to a lot of punk shows. This is where I ask you to compare cultures, popular music and Art. Punk, in particular, had roots in Dada, and other art movements, and the clubs were full of artists and art students. Still, the markets are not the same, and the “business model” for musicians and painters are very different.